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California drought

California has always been thirsty for water.  There simply isn't enough to go around.  Northern California has it, the south and the central valley need it and the fish and wildlife depend on it.

Three years of drought in California has been costing California dearly.  Richard Howitt, an agricultural resource economist, says water restrictions could mean up to $800 million dollars in lost income and force 25,000 people out of work in the San Joaquin and Tulare valleys this year.

Howitt SOT: "Its devastating for the labor market in the valley.  This is a labor market that doesn't have much leeway because they've been hit with the construction slow down for other sorts of laboring jobs and they are really reliant on these farm jobs particularly in these small communities."

Despite spring rains, California remains mired in a serious drought.

Lynn SOT: " Over the last three years our runoff has been very much below normal and the runoff is sort of the best indicator of where we're at in terms of a drought.  It is not just the rain and snow but over the whole year how much do you actually get in those river basins?   Two years ago the water year had 53 percent of normal, last year, 58 per cent of normal runoff and our projection for this year is only 70 percent of normal. So we're not working our way out of that hole."

As the senior meteorologist for the state, Lynn says no one can directly link this current drought to global climate change but it may be a sign of things to come.

Lynn SOT: "We'll look at the 10-20-30 year period and see if it in that amount of time we're in drought more often than some other previous 10-20 or 30-year period.  But one of the things that the computer models do agree on across the world, globally, is that the southwestern part of the united states is very likely to get drier." 

Meanwhile,geologists at UC Davis are finding clues to climate change deep beneath the Sierra. 

Montanez SOT: "In the past decade is really when we starting moving - from a shift from - what was really a marine dominated perspective to starting to look at terrestrial records and cave stalagmites in particular are probably the most faithful and most continuous records."

Graduate student Jessica Oster is looking at the mineral traces left by thousands of years of water dripping in these caves.  Stalagmites grow from ground water that trickles into the cave over millenniums.

Oster SOT: "If what we observe in the past is going to hold true for today than as the climate warms we could expect to see it get drier here."

These cave deposits are like climate clocks.

Oster SOT: "Stalagmites are very useful because we can date them very accurately.  For example I know that just this part of the stalagmite represents 12,000 years of growth so we're looking at about maybe a millimeter or so every thousand years. And that is very useful because even though it grew very slowly I can look back very far in time and I can get a very long lived climate record."

Results show that the climate in the Sierra is influenced by climate changes elsewhere.

Montanez SOT: "What happens climatically up in the high northern latitudes has a direct impact on our climates here.  And if those two regions are connected then they are connected by large scale atmospheric processes and that can be related to climate change."

The data from these stalagmites is tantalizing.  It suggests that as arctic ice sheets melt and disappear, it becomes drier here in California.

Perhaps no one knows more about the importance of water to California's native fish than Peter Moyle. He warns that in this century native salmon and trout could go extinct and the current drought makes the problem all that more complex.  

Moyle SOT: "It complicates it but it also simplifies in a sense because it makes it difficult to postpone decision makingIf the stream flows are getting lower you are stressing the fish more."

And this UC Davis biologist says fish don't lie.

Moyle SOT: "I just completed a study of the state of salmon and trout in California and found that 65 per cent of them are in serious decline and many of them are listed by the state and federal governments as endangered or threatened and these are the species that require the high quality of cold water."

He has been studying California's native fish population for more than 30 years and he says saving the fish is a matter of better management.

Moyle SOT: "Improving the ways we manage cold water streams that don't have dams on them, by better management of the state and federal fish hatcheries that release salmon in the ocean.  There is a whole array of things that could be done."

Paul's SOT: "Managing California's water delivery system is as complex as it can get.  In the Central Valley, the delta is like a massive railroad switching yard."

Snowmelt from the mountains brings water down rivers to reservoirs that in turn empty into a delta system that provides drinking water to millions of people and water to irrigate farmland.

Nat. sound of electricity ---pumps or water moving---

So how does the state move water from the north to the south?  It all begins here, near Tracy, where 11 pumps move, on average, 3 million acre feet of water a year into a canal that goes hundreds of miles to the south...that's the equivalent of the amount of water needed to fill Folsom Lake 3 times in a year.  But most of the land here in the Delta near San Francisco, is kept artificially dry by more than 1,000 miles of levees that are beginning to crumble.

Lund SOT: "The levees in the Delta - many of them - are not very reliable and increasingly unreliable in the long term  -- particularly with earthquakes, increasing floods with climate change So in the long run we have to think of something different to do with water exports and we think in the long term we are driven to one or two strategies.  Either ending exports entirely or having some type of a peripheral canal."

Lund is part of a team of scientists from UC Davis and the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California that says a peripheral canal is the least expensive, most environmentally positive way to repair the delta while maintaining water exports.

Lund SOT: " I think it allows more of the environmental problems to be solved.  One of the chief problems with the delta environmentally now is that we are managing the delta for water supply. Whereas if you have a peripheral canal you can now re-manage the delta for environmental purposes --- you sort of disentangle this set of conflicting purposes."

Moyle SOT: "The best thing for the fish in the San Francisco estuary, in the delta is to stop diversions all together as well as to reduce upstream diversions.  But, we know that is not likely to happen because of all the economic considerations.  Therefore, if we continue to divert water from the delta  -- which means taking Sacramento River water, across the delta, the best thing for the ecosystem is probably the peripheral canal."

Despite the difficulties facing California, Howitt says the state has the ability to adapt to a drier climate.

Howitt SOT: "My studies show that if we can hold on to our share of exports that despite the cuts in water, despite global climate change and despite these other cost increases, the profitability and the value of agriculture and the jobs in agriculture can continue to grow even though the area and the water use cuts back."

Farmers, scientists and policy makers know that all sides must come together around a plan that can support California through the challenge of global climate change.  Paul Pfotenhauer, reporting from Davis.